Question: "What does it mean in John 20:22 that Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit?""

Answer: During one of His post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesus declared to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Then, in the next verse, “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). This is similar to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20 in which Jesus promises, “Surely I am with you always,” and Acts 1:8 in which He proclaims, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” In John 20:21–22, Jesus is sending the disciples out on mission, and He is providing them with the power they will need. That power is found in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The question arises, however, as to why Jesus breathed on the disciples to give them the Holy Spirit in John 20:22 when the disciples would later receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:4: “All of them [the disciples] were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Did the disciples need to receive the Holy Spirit twice? If so, why? The Bible does not directly answer this, but there is enough information provided to derive a plausible explanation.

Acts 1:3 records, “After his [Jesus’] suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” The events recorded in John 20:21–22 occurred during this forty-day period. According to John 20:19, this appearance of Jesus occurred “on the evening of that first day of the week.” This places Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit onto the disciples at the very beginning of the forty-day period in between His resurrection and ascension.

There are two views of Jesus’ breathing on the disciples in relation to their receiving the Holy Spirit. One view is that Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto the disciples in John 20:22 to empower them until the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:4 when they would receive the Holy Spirit permanently. The reception of the Holy Spirit in John 20:22 was a temporary filling of the Holy Spirit, preparatory to the permanent indwelling to come later. In John 20, the disciples were filled in a manner similar to how Bezalel was filled in Exodus 31:2–3. The reception of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:4, then, was the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which resulted in the disciples being indwelt by the Holy Spirit permanently (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

The other view is that Jesus’ breathing on the disciples in John 20:22 did not impart the Holy Spirit at that time; rather, the breathing was a promise—an anticipation of the coming Pentecost. The Spirit did not come upon them at that moment, but Jesus gave them a pledge that they would soon be endowed with the Holy Spirit and with power from on high.